CHARLOTTE -- Carolina Panthers coach John Fox sat at the podium and read the eulogy over the 2007 season Monday morning, but the best illustration of the message played out moments earlier in the parking lot.
When starting quarterback Matt Moore walked out of the building, he smiled proudly as he carried his brand new Vinny Testaverde jersey, signed with a personal message by the guy he took over for this year.
If that doesn't tell you what happened here, nothing else will. Vinny Testaverde to Matt Moore, a 44-year-old guy who came off the couch to win two games for them in midseason, and a 23-year-old rookie who went to training camp with another team altogether.
That would be Testaverde, who led the team in starts with six. That would be Moore, who led the team to two wins in their last three games against playoff teams. That would be for a team led in touchdown passes by Jake Delhomme, who threw eight in two and a half games, and no one ever caught him after his elbow blew up.
That, folks, would be ridiculous. And strangely enough, that's why the Panthers think they're closer to fixing things than many give them credit for.
"I think if we can stick with the same guy behind center all year that will a difference," right tackle Jordan Gross said. "Losing Jake really hurt us. The guys that stepped in did a nice job, but you want to go with your starter. I'm excited to see him come back next year with a brand new elbow and feeling good. We really missed him on the field, but off as well, just his leadership."
The quarterback thing might sound like an excuse, but there's plenty of evidence to prove that it's also reality.
Of the 12 playoff teams, none got fewer than 12 starts from their starting quarterbacks.
The nine teams who started three or more (Carolina and San Francisco had four each) posted a combined record of 44-100, a .306 winning percentage. The 11 teams that enjoyed 16 starts by their quarterbacks posted a 114-62 record (.633).
Delhomme agreed that the changes that need to be made here weren't so large they couldn't be accomplished this offseason. He said he thought the team needed to add "a playmaker" to go along with Steve Smith, but that the defense showed a solid young core this year which can be built upon.
"I don't think a whole lot," Delhomme replied when asked about the team's needs. "We lost some close games. We finished 7-9, not nearly where we thought we would have done. I do think we have some talent on this team. I do think we need to add some pieces. I don't think there's any doubt we need to add some pieces here or there. I think we have some young guys who know how to play.
"I don't think we're that far off. You just look at a team like Tampa. This is a team that struggled last year (when) they had injuries. And they won our division. They're going to the playoffs, and they clinched with a couple of games to go. You can be turned around in one year in the NFL."
And though no official decree has come down from ownership, that turnaround will apparently be orchestrated by Fox and general manager Marty Hurney.
Fox continued to strike a defiant tone when asked about his status. Certainly he's tired of being asked --because inside the building there's never been a question -- but the speculation remains as long as Jerry Richardson maintains his silence.
"Our ownership has been very supportive, very positive," Fox said. "I never have foreseen changes with Marty or myself, and I don't anticipate them moving forward. I don't have a crystal ball. I can't predict the future. There has been plenty of speculation, I will say that. But I don't see it changing from any years past. ...
"I've got three years left on my contract that I intend to uphold. I'll just say that."
Since taking over the Panthers in 2002, Fox has built a 51-45 regular-season record, and only nine teams in the league have more wins over that span (including just four in the NFC). Only three teams have more playoff wins than the Panthers since 2002 (New England, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh), thanks to Fox's 5-2 postseason record.
That's part of the reason why the players have been supportive of him.
Delhomme went on and on about Fox, saying the speculation he might be fired was laughable.
"I don't even think it's a question in my mind," Delhomme said. "Where would you find someone to replace him? It doesn't happen. John is the right guy. It's been evident. We didn't play that well this season, and he will be the first to tell you that 'Maybe I should have done a better job of coaching.' That's John. He's going to take the blame.
"And the one thing about him is he knows how to work. And I talked to Vinny about it, and he's seen a ton of coaches. We talked a lot, and I try to talk a lot with guys with experience, and he was like, 'Well it's certainly not the coach. He gets it. He understands.' And that's so true. John gets it. He's our guy."
As he sent them away for the offseason, Fox told his players of the need to take the offseason program seriously. Safety Chris Harris said his instructions were to "get bigger, faster, stronger and smarter."
But mostly, it was about the disappointment of the season that unraveled.
"He said that, naturally, this isn't the kind of season we wanted to finish with," defensive end Mike Rucker said. "We wanted to be preparing this week for another opponent. But dealing the cards that we've been dealt and the way the way that we played them, especially winning against two playoff teams in December and playing Dallas strong, it's something positive.
"Overall I feel like we've finished strong, but we could have been better. You try to look at the glass half full."